The Malik Report
by George Malik on 01/26/13 at 07:47 PM ET
The Detroit Red Wings took part in a light practice at Joe Louis Arena before spiriting off to Chicago, where they hope to catch the Blackhawks a little tired tomorrow night (7 PM, FSD, WXYT AM) as the as-yet-unbeaten Blackhawks will play in Columbus against the Blue Jackets this evening.
Wings coach Mike Babcock seems to have learned his lesson from the groin and shoulder injury-inducing unscheduled practice he held last Sunday. He kept Valtteri Filppula (sore knee, still recovering from sprained MCL) off the ice, he chose to send Darren Helm (recovering from a back injury) to the locker room early, and he told the Wings' beat writers that he plans on not holding a morning skate tomorrow to attempt to avoid unnecessary wear and tear, so we're going to hear a decent amount about the following parallel storylines over the next 24 hours:
First, as the Detroit News's Gregg Krupa notes, the Wings have taken far too many penalties over the first four games of this 2013 season, but they're not exactly alone in scratching their heads as to what constitutes a penalty under a revised "crackdown" on obstruction penalties--a literal "hands off" policy, this time around--that always seems to turn early-season games into special teams affairs (before fading away come playoff time):
Just before the first game, the Wings and all teams in the NHL got a video that stressed tough calls on any action taken by an opposing player near the hands of a puck carrier, or a player about to receive the puck. Put a stick near the hands and it might be called hooking. Bump the guy's hands as the puck is arriving and expect an interference call, the league told everyone.
It was in part responsible for the parade to the penalty boxes Friday at Joe Louis Arena, when the Wings took nine penalties and the Wild six.
"They made it very clear," coach Mike Babcock said of the NHL. "They sent us a video on how the game was going to be called and if you put a stick on another guy's hands, that's going to be called. I just think every night the standard is the standard. You've got to respect what's being called and keep the stick on puck and not on hands."
Easier said than done sometimes, especially when players learn to play one way and suddenly they must consider that some of their tactics can put them in the penalty box. Kyle Quincey said he discussed it with Niklas Kronwall.
"I was telling Kronner, growing up, they teach you to get in on the hands so they can't make plays," said Quincey, who had his best game of the season Friday, according to Babcock. "And now, that's the farthest thing from what you want to do. And the biggest thing is when you're going stick on puck, a lot of time they step on the stick and it's a tripping penalty, now. So, you've got to be very, very careful. It's almost like they want to get five, six, seven power plays per game. Hopefully, it goes down in the next couple of weeks."
It tends to, but you never know during a lockout-shortened season. The 94-95 Wings can tell you that penalties were assessed in a certain manner throughout the regular season and in a very different manner during as the playoffs progressed.
The "progress" word is the key word regarding the second storyline going into tomorrow night's game.
The Wings would've been a "work in progress" if Mikael Samuelsson (groin), Jan Mursak (shoulder), Carlo Colaiacovo (shoulder), Ian White (knee), Jonas Gustavsson (groin), Joey MacDonald (back) and Jonathan Ericsson, who's supposed to return tomorrow night after missing a week thanks to a, "He stepped on a puck and fell hard" back injury, were all healthy.
Injuries included, a team trying to adjust to life without Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and the hard-hitting Brad Stuart is essentially scrambling to make up for both no preseason whatsoever and what would have been a good month to six weeks' worth of time to establish a new identity during an 82-game season over the course of one or two weeks.
Ericsson told Krupa that he felt like the rest of us regarding Friday night's effort vs. Minnesota--that the Wings have indeed made some good strides toward establishing their identity in their 5-3 victory over the Wild, the referees and themselves--but the Blackhawks are even more stacked than the Suter and Parise-strengthened Wild, which has Babcock wary regarding any suggestions that the team's steadied its ship and placed it on a playoff-bound course:
Babcock called the game "a tough task for us, for sure. Very high end talent, mobile defense, playing the game real fast — I watched them closely the other night and you know they're doing a good job. Penalty kill's been really good for them. They're going to be a tough task for us, for sure.
"It's going to be imperative that we really stay together in a five-man unit, forecheck well, play defense well, and be patient. And yet, you can't go in there and stand around and watch them play, or they're going to end up having the puck all night long. So we need to get off good and strong in the playoff circle and be ready to compete.
".... The bottom line is, the type of team we have, we're going to see a lot of games that's going to be a grind fest. And that's just the reality of the situation. So embrace what you've got and do the best we're capable of."
In other words, as MLive's Ansar Khan notes, the Wings-in-Progress received some very necessary reinforcements in the size, strength and speed departments thanks to Todd Bertuzzi and Darren Helm's returns on Friday...
But a team that's probably going to start Sunday's game with Brian Lashoff skating alongside Niklas Kronwall and Ericsson returning to play alongside Kent Huskins on the third defensive pairing (I think?), with the roller coaster pair that is the inconsistent Kyle Quincey and a sometimes less-than-assertive Brendan Smith serving as the team's #3 and #4 defenseman is a team that's not exactly its "new self" yet.
Babcock told Khan that the Wings improved by leaps and bounds over their performances against St. Louis, Columbus and Dallas especially...
“Drastic, night and day,'' coach Mike Babcock said of his defense's improvement from a week ago “I thought the last game (5-3 win over Minnesota Friday) was the best. I thought Huskins was better, I thought Lash was good, I thought Smitty (Brendan Smith) was strong. (Kyle) Quincey might have had his best game. Kronner (Niklas Kronwall), you don't even worry about him. We need that group to keep improving. It's going to be baby steps.''
The club is missing puck-movers Ian White (leg laceration, out 2-3 weeks) and Carlo Colaiacovo (separated shoulder, our 3-4 weeks). It hopes to have Jonathan Ericsson (hip, shoulder) back Sunday, or shortly after. Jakub Kindl made his season debut Friday, after missing three games with a groin injury.
In the meantime, the Red Wings are making due with a blue-collar defense that is blocking a lot of shots (Huskins and Quincey lead with nine each).
“I thought we were way better defensively (Friday), and yet we still had to count on Howie too much,'' Babcock said. “I'd like to not have to count on him at all, but that's the way things are right now. But, I think our young D is getting better and better. We managed our gap better. We moved the puck better as the game went on.''
The Wings have relied on Howard too much. Without his stellar saves when the Wild were out-shooting Detroit 11-6 in the first period (at one point it was a now-familiar 8-2 Minnesota), Howard bought the Wings time to find their footing, but if we are to believe the Wings' statisticians, the defense also blocked a remarkable 24 shots on Friday, with Kent Huskins (Laser Beam or Popcorn?) blocking 7, Quincey blocking 4, Brendan Smith and Niklas Kronwall 3 apiece and Brian Lashoff and Jakub Kindl 2 apiece.
That impressed Mr. MVP:
Said Howard: “We've been doing a lot better job. I think a lot of it is guys sacrificing their bodies. There's good communication back there, which allows us to break out faster.''
Therein lies the rub, because the Red Wings also began to reestablish themselves as a team that can still play Red Wings puck possession hockey regardless of who happens to be wearing red and white jerseys, and as fast breakouts, passes to forwards skating through the neutral zone with speed and attempting to play defense by both making pretty plays in the offensive zone and grinding it out down low, regardless of whether you're on the first or fourth line and first or fourth defensive pair, is pretty much the only way the home-grown Wings know how to play hockey.
That, and it works. If you have the puck--which also means winning more faceoffs, which the Wings haven't been very good on thus far--you dictate the pace of play, and whether you're the St. Louis Blues, playing dump-chase and crash hockey, or you're the Blackhawks, playing a variation on the old Colorado Avalanche's system under Joel Quenneville, or you're the smaller, lighter and a little bit slower Wings, you win hockey when you have the puck more than your opponent does.
For the Wings, that means not only moving the puck up ice with speed and grinding it out down low, but also playing a very aggressive version of the old Wings trap under Babcock when on defense, using not one but two forecheckers to attempt to force defensemen and forwards to one side before one of the hard-working Wings wingers skating under Babcock's incredibly demanding system comes back to join a defense that tries to form a rotating four-man box that keeps opposing players to the outside in the defensive zone, using sticks in passing lanes and skates, legs and bodies ready to block shots and box out players attempting to either screen Howard, sneak in for back-door passes on down-low cycles or those who attempt to predate upon secondary scoring chances from getting to the puck, all while hoping that Howard provides superb netmiding when necessary--and that the team hauls the puck out of trouble and back down to the other end of the ice as soon as the team gets it back under Detroit control.
The Wings believe that they're at least on their way to reestablishing their tried and true style of play:
“(Friday) was a building block, for sure,'' Quincey said. “We had a very strong game one through six. We're going to keep getting better every game.''
Kronwall believes the unit is trending in the right direction.
“We talked a little bit after every game what we can improve and do better, and so far it's been better every game,'' Kronwall said. “Of course, it always helps when Howie's playing great in net. Both Lash and Huskins have played great since they got there. So, very impressive.''
Given that they're working with someone who thought he'd be playing as the Grand Rapids Griffins' #1 defenseman "after Smith left" in Lashoff, and someone who was playing for the Norfolk Admirals last weekend in Kent Huskins, the Wings are doing decently, but they're going to have to play at another level to beat the Hawks.
Even when White and Colaiacovo return, we all kind of know that this team has to make an addition on defense, though Ken Holland and Company will probably make that move closer to the trade deadline (that means no wild P.K. Subban trade scenarios, folks), if not a top-six forward to accentuate those ten or eleven "bottom six" guys the Wings possess at present as well...
But for now, the Wings are what they are, and they've got to bring some more blue-collar grind, spit, polish and grit to the equation while trying to play a simpler, less flashy but more efficient version of Red Wings puck possession hockey.
Why not abandon the system for dump-and-chase-and-trap muck and grind?
Because the system works, and the Wings, the Griffins and even the Walleye play variations of the same system the team's employed since Scotty Bowman came to town in 1994. There's no reason to stop using it simply because Nicklas Lidstrom's not around anymore.
For the record, the Chicago Tribune's Chris Kuc has already penned a Wings-Hawks preview:
Last meeting: Hawks won 3-2 in a shootout on April 7, 2012 in Detroit.
Probable goaltenders: Red Wings, Jimmy Howard, 2-2-0, 3.48 goals-against average; Hawks, Corey Crawford, 3-0-0, 1.98.
Averages per game (NHL rank)
RED WINGS (2-2-0) CATEGORY HAWKS(4-0-0)
2.25 (21) Goals for 4.25 (3)
3.50 (24) Goals against 2.50 (11)
10.0 (27) Power-play pct. 30.0 (7)
68.2 (25) Penalty-kill pct. 91.7 (3)
Statistics through Friday
Storyline: The Hawks second home game of the season is the second of back-to-back contests. The Red Wings are coming off a 5-3 victory over the Wild on Friday night at home. Pavel Datsyuk leads them in scoring with two goals and four assists in four games.
The Wings will probably hold some sort of short practice on Monday before reprising last Tuesday's home game against Dallas with...A home game against Dallas...and after that, the team will receive two days off before hoping to make amends for their rousting by the Blues when St. Louis comes to town on Friday, and the Wings will play the Blue Jackets for the second time in their second of 12 sets of back-to-back games on Saturday.
The Wings will play three more sets of back-to-backs in February (on the 9th and 10th, 23rd and 24th and 27th and 28th) and will have three two-day breaks between February games. Otherwise, they play every other day.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.